Why Impostor Syndrome Is an Issue for College Grads Entering the Workforce

Impostor syndrome impacts new working professionals every day, especially if you are a new college grad. But there are strategies you and your employer can take to overcome it.
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Angélica S. Gutiérrez, Ph.D.
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Dr. Angélica S. Gutiérrez is an associate professor of management at Loyola Marymount University. Recognized as one of the "World’s Best 40 Under 40 Business Professors," her research explores the impact of imposter syndrome, the importance of negoti...
Published on November 16, 2023
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Raneem Taleb-Agha is a copy editor for BestColleges. Previously, she worked as a bilingual educator in both the U.S. and Spain before transitioning to editing and writing. She holds a BA in Spanish and Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley....
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  • Up to 82% of work professionals report experiencing impostor syndrome.
  • College grads are one of the groups most susceptible to impostor syndrome, and the workplace can impact mental wellbeing.
  • Identifying personal triggers and holding organizations accountable are the most critical steps to counter the effects of impostor syndrome.

Even talented and successful individuals — from the singer-turned-actress Lady Gaga to farm worker-turned-engineer and astronaut José Hernández — experience the impostor phenomenon, also known as impostor syndrome.

Coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Susan Imes, impostor phenomenon refers to feelings of inadequacy and a fear that others will discover that one does not belong in a specific role or position.

Despite the word syndrome in its popular usage, the phenomenon and its symptoms are neither a disease nor a disorder. Impostor phenomenon is prevalent — some studies find that up to 82% of working professionals experience it at some point.

But while well-established and successful individuals who experience this phenomenon may draw on past achievements to remind themselves of their competence, recent college graduates who are just starting their careers may struggle. Research finds that the workplace may exacerbate feelings of impostor syndrome.

By recognizing the symptoms of impostor syndrome and identifying its origins, college grads may counter its effects more effectively, and companies may avoid inadvertently triggering it.

Understanding Impostor Syndrome

Pauline Clance and Susan Imes first coined and identified the impostor phenomenon after counseling women who, despite records of achievement, doubted their abilities and made external attributions for their success. Self-doubt, an inability to internalize success, and a fear of being discovered as a fraud are the defining characteristics of impostor syndrome.

While impostor syndrome was believed to be primarily a women’s issue based on Clance and Imes’ foundational research, studies have demonstrated that men experience it, too. Various factors can make some individuals more susceptible to experiencing impostor feelings relative to others.

Childhood Experiences

An individual’s childhood experiences and the parenting styles to which they were exposed can contribute to impostor syndrome.

Studies find, for example, that some parents label their children — i.e., “the athletic one,” “the artistic one,” “the smart one.” Children who may not have been labeled or characterized as smart by their parents might carry a stigma of unintelligence or incompetence into adulthood.

Individuals with certain personality traits, including low self-esteem, high neuroticism, and high perfectionism, can also be more prone to experiencing impostor syndrome.

Women and People of Color

Women and people of color are also likely to feel like impostors when they are in fields in which they are numerically underrepresented, such as STEM. They may look around, and if they do not see others who look like them, they may question their deservingness and belongingness.

While much of the research and discussions on the impostor syndrome assume the individual is the problem and internal factors (i.e., childhood experiences, personality traits, numeric underrepresentation) are triggers, more recent studies find that the spaces we occupy can lead to impostor syndrome.

Unfortunately, college environments are among these impostor-triggering spaces.

Reasons Impostor Syndrome Is Prevalent Among College Grads

College students are among the groups most susceptible to experiencing impostor syndrome. The college years may be overwhelming as students adapt to a new environment, balance academic responsibilities, navigate relationships, and address other challenges that may surface.

Students may question their ability to handle it all. Feelings of incompetence, unintelligence, and not belonging may surface if students perform poorly or believe they are not as academically talented as their peers.

Natalie Toma, a business major at the University of Southern California (USC), said, Going to a school where I’m surrounded by students who are incredibly accomplished or may have had parents/connections that have given them a leg up in life has been challenging. There were times when I’ve felt demotivated and insecure in my abilities [and] still do.

These impostor feelings are linked to stress and burnout and can lead students to change majors or not apply to their field of interest because they may fear not getting in or doing poorly.

Angela Liu, another USC student double majoring in computer science and business, experienced impostor syndrome after getting rejected from a program.

I applied to a consulting group and got rejected. The reason why? Apparently, they liked me as a person but ultimately rejected me because I greatly lacked creativity, and my math was not good. It was hard not to feel like an impostor because even my peers evaluated me as someone who wasn’t fit for their organization, she said.

Left unaddressed, impostor feelings experienced as college students may persist beyond graduation.

Impostor Syndrome's Impact on College Grads Entering the Workforce

Studies find that college grads who experience impostor syndrome may work longer hours than a project may require because they seek to avoid failure and being thought of as a fraud. Consequently, they may experience job dissatisfaction and burnout. In addition to impacting mental health and overall well-being, impostor syndrome can stifle individuals’ careers.

Research finds a negative relationship between impostor syndrome and career striving. That is, individuals who feel like impostors may not recognize their competencies and find it challenging to establish career goals and strategies to achieve them.

Feelings of being an impostor may also keep individuals from applying for leadership positions. Leadership positions come with increased visibility and risk of failure and, with it, the risk of being thought of as a fraud — which is what impostors seek to avoid at all costs.

And given workers' self-doubt and inability to internalize achievements, they may exhibit continuance organizational commitment. Employees who are characterized by continuance organizational commitment stay in the organization because they believe leaving would be costly.

Given workers' tendency to believe that they have positions and salaries that they do not deserve, they may stay at their current workplace out of fear of losing what they have and doubt that another workplace will offer the same. This can hinder career advancement.

Strategies for College Grads to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

While impostor syndrome may not be overcome, there are specific steps college grads can take to help lessen its effects.

Identify Your Triggers

The first and arguably most critical step is to ask yourself: What is triggering these impostor feelings? Knowing the trigger(s) will help you identify appropriate measures to address them.

Normalize Your Feelings

If the feelings of inadequacy and fear of being discovered as a fraud stem from starting a new job, then remind yourself that it is normal to feel this way. The responsibilities are new, but with time, patience, and a willingness to learn, you will become more comfortable. U.S. presidents and CEOs have felt impostor syndrome when starting a new position.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said: Very few people, whether you've been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They're not going to tell you that, but it's true.

Ask for Help

Nobody will know everything about a new job, and it is okay to ask for help. Adopting a growth mindset — and believing that skills and abilities can be developed over time — rather than having a fixed mindset is critical. Enrolling in a class to develop a new skill or asking a supervisor for resources, including training or shadowing an employee, may help diminish impostor feelings and increase confidence in the process.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Like in college, you may also experience impostor syndrome when you engage in social comparison in the workplace. You may look at your colleagues and wonder whether you are as competent, intelligent, or qualified as them. If impostor feelings are stemming from comparing yourself to others, then it may be effective to recognize that others have strengths — and so do you.

Look to others as sources of inspiration and seek to learn skills or traits that they possess instead of seeing them as competition. This can lead to personal and professional growth. At the end of the day, our only competition is the person we see in the mirror.

Trust Yourself, You Got This

Impostor syndrome is an experience that resonates with many — from college students and recent grads to celebrities. It can be debilitating, but it does not have to be. Assess the origins of your impostor syndrome by asking yourself where these feelings of inadequacy come from. This is the first step in identifying suitable strategies to combat impostor syndrome and countering its effects.

But if the impostor feelings stem from your employer, then the problem is not impostor syndrome. Change the narrative from it is a me issue to it is an organizational issue.

Every college student entering the workforce should feel confident in their abilities to succeed in their chosen career. However, if you got the job, that means you're qualified.

Speak with a supervisor or a trusted senior colleague who can create change in the organization so that they can address the organizational issues causing your feelings of inadequacy, which you might falsely recognize as impostor syndrome.